Master Class: An Introduction to The Yardbirds

The Yardbirds have a strange legacy in the annals of rock history. They are celebrated as the band where Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, and Jimmy Page all got their starts before going on to bigger (but not necessarily better – 461 Ocean Boulevard, anyone?) things. The group is also known, due to Page’s involvement, as the band that would evolve into Led Zeppelin. This is the legacy that the fine people at Rolling Stone would prefer to leave you with, but it is an unfair glossing-over of some great blues, rock, and even pop by an underrated group that never quite found its footing here in the States. For whatever it’s worth, besides the illustrious lead guitarists, vocalist Keith Relf, guitarist/bassist Chris Dreja, bassist Paul Samwell-Smith, and drummer Jim McCarty are all terrific musicians, McCarty in particular.

Clapton’s tenure with the band is bothersome. On the one hand, their live performances from the time (heard on 1964’s Five Live Yardbirds) are fantastic, giving full credence to the famous graffiti of the time in London that read “CLAPTON IS GOD.” However, their studio output with Clapton is stale, confined, and mostly lackluster. The live documents are proof that the band were not allowed to give it their all in the studio, as many producers during that period thought of guitar distortion or feedback as an aesthetical error (check out The Who’s A Quick One album for another example of a dirty band being forced to sound clean).

Functioning mostly as a singles band, as many British and American groups did at the time, The Yardbirds released only three singles before Clapton called it quits. Their first large hit, “For Your Love,” was a straight up pop song. For the group to score success with something so inherently poppy went against Clapton’s blues “purism,” or at least the blues according to Clapton’s white middle-class notion of what the blues was. After a one-album stint with John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers, Clapton went on to form Cream, one of the absolute best bands of their time. His career post-Cream I can take or leave, “Layla” notwithstanding.

As a replacement, Clapton suggested noted London session player Jimmy Page. Page declined, stating his gig as a session man better suited his poor health. Page then recommended the band recruit Jeff Beck. The Beck period of The Yardbirds produced some innovative and interesting material, proving the band’s worth, at least in my mind. With Beck on board, the band veered from the blues and into early hard rock. Songs like “The Train Kept A-Rolling” and their twisted cover of Bo Diddley’s “I’m A Man” showed traces of their early blues influence while also breaking new musical ground.

Beck can be heard on three of the band’s four studio albums: For Your Love (although Clapton is on most of the record), Having A Rave-Up (its b-side features live tracks with Clapton), and Roger The Engineer. The band experimented with fuzz-tone distortion on songs like the Motown-meets-India “Heart Full Of Soul” and the philosophically-minded “You’re A Better Man Than I.” Another song, “Still I’m Sad,” used musical motifs inspired by Gregorian chants. The influence of exotic sounds was extraordinarily popular at the time among British bands: The Rolling Stones colored “Paint It Black” with a sitar, while George Harrison used a full-on Hindustani ensemble on “Love You To” from Revolver, and Ray Davies wrote “See My Friends” after hearing fishermen in India singing their morning chants.

The band kept up with the times in terms of taking bold musical risks, a choice that kept them ahead of fellow second-tier British Invasion acts like The Dave Clark Five, Herman’s Hermits, or The Animals, all of whom suffered a serious drop in sales following The Beatles’ Rubber Soul in late 1965. One flaw of these early Yardbirds albums is that the majority of these tunes are blues covers, while others were written by professional songwriters. The group upped their game on Roger The Engineer in 1966, on which every song was written as a group effort, consisting of their own takes on blues, rock, ballads, and some surreal jams. It is a strong standout for its time, showcasing the band operating on all cylinders.

After some minor personnel changes in which Samwell-Smith left the band, giving bass duties to Dreja, Jimmy Page joined the group to share guitar duties with Beck. The first release with Beck and Page both on guitar was a single, “Happenings Ten Years Time Ago” backed with “Psycho Daisies,” which I consider one of the best hard rock singles of the era. Both songs are incredible performances, even if “Psycho Daisies” is a mere minute and fifty seconds in length.

Their next recording was actually a revisiting of “The Train Kept A-Rolling,” with a different set of lyrics and entitled “Stroll On.” The band can be seen playing it in Michelangelo Antonioni’s excellent 1966 film Blow-Up.

Unfortunately, this phase of the band’s career proved too good to be true, as Beck found himself fired from the band in October 1966. Beck would go on to form The Jeff Beck Group, featuring a young Rod Stewart on vocals and Ron Wood on bass. Those two would go on to form The Faces before Stewart’s successful solo career and Wood joined The Rolling Stones in 1975. Beck’s solo career as a guitarist, while nowhere near as filled with drama as Clapton’s or as high-profile as Page’s, is remarkably diverse. The Jeff Beck Group set the groundwork for hard rock, while his solo releases took him into jazz fusion.

Now a quartet, The Yardbirds carried on with producer Mickie Most at the helm. His economic, pop-oriented approach to recording prohibited the band from releasing a song longer than three minutes, while also often resorting to session players over McCarty and Dreja in the studio. This third phase of their career got off to a great start with the catchy (but slightly sexist) “Little Games.” Unfortunately, the single proved to be a flop. Their only hit in this period was “Ha, Ha, Said The Clown,” (it is even worse than it sounds).

Despite this, Page introduced some interesting techniques to the mainstream, like playing with a wah-wah pedal or using a violin bow on his guitar strings. No, he was not the first to do either of these things – Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, and Frank Zappa all used wah-wah before Page, while The Creation’s single “Makin’ Time” featured a bowed guitar – but these elements certainly served to color the band’s sound, making their third incarnation distinctly different from the Clapton and Beck eras. By 1968, the band started to split over musical differences: Relf and McCarty were more interested in pursuing folk, while Page wanted to go into heavier blues rock.

In the end, the group disbanded in mid 1968, but due to some contractual obligations Page toured with a new lineup, dubbed The New Yardbirds. The band consisted of Page, vocalist Robert Plant, drummer John Bonham, and bassist/keyboardist John Paul Jones. By the time of their next public experience, they had been rechristened Led Zeppelin.

After the breakup of the original band, Dreja opted out of a spot as Led Zeppelin’s bassist to pursue a career as a photographer, while Relf and McCarty formed a group called Renaissance. Like their fellow Brits in Fleetwood Mac, Renaissance would go on to enjoy some fame and success long after the original members (Relf and McCarty) were out of the picture. Relf tragically died in 1976 when his poorly-grounded amplifier gave him a fatal electric shock. McCarty worked as a songwriter for a period before forming Box Of Frogs with Samwell-Smith and Dreja. McCarty and Dreja spearheaded a “reunion” album – minus Relf, Clapton, and Page, with Beck on one track – in 2003 called Birdland. The less said about it, the better.

The Yardbirds are one of the definitive bands of the Swinging London scene, psychedelic without delving into Pink Floyd-esque madness, and catchy without being inane. Throughout, the band boasted three extraordinarily gifted players – the live showstopper in Clapton, the experimenting Beck, and the riff-heavy Page – that gives the band three unique periods in their discography. Roger The Engineer ranks among the best pre-Revolver discs of its period, but their other studio discs – For Your Love, Having A Rave-Up, and Little Games – are all enjoyable in their own regard.

Essential Listening:
“I Wish You Would”
“For Your Love”
“Smokestack Lightning”
“You’re A Better Man Than I”
“Heart Full Of Soul”
“The Train Kept A-Rolling”
“Shapes Of Things”
“Over, Under, Sideways, Down”
“He’s Always There”
“What Do You Want”
“Ever Since The World Began”
“Happenings Ten Years Time Ago”
“Psycho Daisies”
“Little Games”

About Alex DiBlasi (72 Articles)
Alex DiBlasi is a writer and musician based out of Philadelphia. As a journalist, he has contributed articles for the Queens Courier, Long Island City magazine, the Journal of Rock Music Studies, and the American Music Review. As an academic, he has written about Frank Zappa, The Monkees, The Kinks, and the cinema of the Czech New Wave. He also previously taught literature at St. John’s University in Queens. His first book, an anthology of scholarly essays from all over the world on Geek Rock, co-edited with Dr. Victoria Willis, will be released in October 2014 by Scarecrow Press. Alex spent most of 2013 and part of 2014 on the road with his partner Alexa Altman, visiting each of the Lower 48 states as the basis for a book. Aside from his work in the arts, Alex also works with the Manhattan-based Sikh Coalition as an advocate for religious freedom.